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Published: Sunday, 10/3/2004

Vocal historian: Jazz icon Jon Hendricks reflects on the formation of his career

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC
Jon Hendricks works with the members of the University of Toledo's Vocalstra. Jon Hendricks works with the members of the University of Toledo's Vocalstra.
FRASER / BLADE Enlarge

There is always a soft light about Jon Hendricks. Perhaps it's the result of decades of honing his skills as an entertainer, though a bluesman might suggest it's just part of the package that comes with being, as Hendricks is, a seventh son.

I like to think the glow comes from an abundance of creative spirit.

The endlessly energetic University of Toledo music professor, jazz icon, and father of vocalese recently turned 83. Although Hendricks' personal gaze remains directed firmly into the future, he took a recent afternoon to reminisce about the past, specifically about Depression era Toledo and the extraordinary cultural melting pot in which he came of musical age. That, he recalled, was the sort of place where a singer, even a 10-year-old singer, could get ahead.

For Hendricks, the story of his musical life begins with the church. His father, Alexander Brooks Hendricks, was minister of Toledo's Warren AME Church, where his mother directed the choir. Evidently she knew what to do with talent; she had her gifted son singing solos by age 9.

It was the perfect training ground, remembered Hendricks.

"If you want to learn the essentials of jazz music, you go to a black church. That's where the cultural contribution starts. Nobody swings like church people; the spirit picks you right up," he said.

The church offered Hendricks more than lessons in swing; the irony and double meanings embedded in the lyrics of spirituals also sparked a lifelong interest in words.

Musical life around the neighborhood was hardly less vital. Art Tatum lived down the street. Fats Waller was a family friend and frequent house guest, his father having gone to seminary school in Wilberforce, Ohio, with the Rev. Hendricks.

When things were quiet around the house, Hendricks liked to go downtown, where he would spend an afternoon hanging out in the music departments at Lamson's or Tiedtke's. Both department stores featured live musicians who spent their days demonstrating the latest sheet music for customers. Hendricks never bought anything, but he didn't need to. He could glean everything he needed to know with his ears.

The radio, still a novelty back then, offered additional possibilities. Hendricks scoured the airwaves, imitating and assimilating the styles of crooners like Gene Austin, Russ Columbo, and Bing Crosby.

All that listening paid off. By age 10, Hendricks was regularly being invited to sing in Toledo night spots.

These early gigs were with the versatile pianists Mozart Perry or Herman Easley, both Hendricks' elders. Repertoire was crafted to fit the clientele. "Mother Macree" was a staple with Irish crowds, "Torna a Surriento" with Italians.

Soon, family friend and neighbor Art Tatum became Hendricks' most important music teacher.

"I was in Robinson Junior High and we got out at 3 p.m. By 3:30 I would be at Art's house. Unlike the other boys and girls who were out playing, I had to be practicing for that night's show. It used to be such a drag for me, because I didn't understand what I was getting."

Tatum's teaching style was sublimely direct. The pianist played complex lines on the keyboard, then he told Hendricks to sing them. Listening, insisted Tatum, was the key to everything.

"It was the world's best musical training" said Hendricks.

It was Tatum who got Hendricks-billed as "Little Johnny Hendricks, The Sepia Bobby Breen"-booked into The Waiters' and Bellmen's Club, Toledo's famous black and tan nightspot. There Hendricks worked nightly alongside an emcee, comedian (who sometimes doubled as the tap dancer), four dancing girls, and a six-piece band. Should the police happen on the scene, which they did on more than one occasion, Tatum made sure "Little Johnny" was well hidden in the basement.

Those were busy days and nights, said Hendricks.

"I would come home after school, eat an early supper, and go to bed. Then my mother would wake me up at 8 p.m. and I would get ready to go to work from 9 until about 1:30 in the morning. We did it because the family needed the money and I loved to sing."

Waiters' and Bellmen's offered plenty of excitement to occupy a child's attention, but what strikes Hendricks today about that nightclub was the easygoing atmosphere that accompanied the racial integration.

"We had a black and tan club in Toledo before just about anybody. After midnight you saw as many white people as you did African people. And they were all hanging out together. Toledo was hip."

Not all of Toledo's nightlife was sweetness and light, however. Hendricks also sang at Chateau le France, a popular club owned by the Licovoli brothers, tough bosses of a Detroit-based liquor-running operation.

"Those guys would drive up in their Packard touring car after running shotgun for their truck coming down from Michigan. They would come in the back door, take these sawed-off shotguns out of their overcoats, and put them in a bucket. Then they would straighten themselves up, say, 'Hi,' and rub my head. It made me mad as hell, but they would also put $20 in my hand. That was a lot of money then, enough to feed my family for a month. I would sing them swing songs like 'Drop Me off in Harlem' and they loved it."

The musical scene was distinctly tamer downtown. There, Tatum helped get Hendricks hired at the Rivoli Theatre, where movies alternated with stage shows. It was at the Rivoli, with Tatum accompanying him on songs like "Love Letters in the Sand" and "Mighty Like a Rose," that Hendricks says he learned his most important lessons about the entertainment profession.

"The stage manager taught me to smile on stage, to be clean and neat. And if I wasn't, he would slap me hard. I was just a kid, maybe out shooting marbles between shows. Then I would come in, dust off my hands, and, paying no attention to how I looked, think I was ready to go on stage. If I didn't clean up and fast, he made sure I felt it.

"I learned my lessons. To this day, when they say 'Ladies and Gentlemen, Jon Hendricks,' I am smiling and ready to go. I've never forgotten that. Even today, I tell my musicians that they have to dress up."

When Hendricks' family moved to Greenup, Kentucky, Jon was allowed to stay behind in Toledo. By then the 16-year-old was working with The Swing Buddies quartet, singing live twice a week on WSPD, and earning $106.11 a week, a small fortune for the times.

Soon thereafter, with World War II kicking up in Eastern Europe, Hendricks would leave Toledo for Detroit, where he entered another phase of his musical life.

Today, though Hendricks acknowledges that Toledo's Depression era vitality is gone forever, he still has musical goals for his home town. At the University of Toledo, where he teaches jazz history and coaches the Vocalstra, Hendricks aspires to create one of the county's great jazz performance departments, one based, as his own genius has always been, on music making that is grounded in culture and speaks from the heart.

It's a vision Toledo deserves to have realized.

Contact Steven Cornelius at:scornelius@theblade.com

or 419-724-6152



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